A Beautifully Fruitless Scramble

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When we are young, our lives are fuelled by passion and coloured by dreams. There is music everywhere we go, in the forests, in the streams, in our ears for days after that girl from a distant class had sung on stage. The aspiring scholars among us would shut out all the noise along with the music, focusing all their energies to clear the only hurdle that matters. They exchange an uneventful youth for a column of As on their result slips. Their jar of stars is empty. The dreamers and poets among us would open their hearts and struggle to get the right words to express their unfamiliar thoughts and feelings. In the end, they too end up with empty jars. Exhausting and hurting, romance is often a beautifully fruitless scramble up a mountain of loose gravel. Would you knowingly take such a scramble?

A chance encounter between contestant Mavis Hee and songwriter Chen Jia Ming 陈佳明 at the Miss Singapore Chinatown Pageant 1992, turned out to be a life-changing event for the young, talented woman. Chen overheard her singing a song when she thought she was alone in the dressing room and told her that he would have trouble finding a better voice in Singapore. Mavis went on to win the Miss Amity and Miss Photogenic award. She came in third overall, but she ended up choosing singing as her career. In 1994, her first album was launched. It’s entitled 明知道 or Knowingly. The melody was written by Chen (married to Peng Xiu Mei) and the rather telling lyrics were penned by both of them.

Her first album was already a major hit and Taiwanese songwriter Jonathan Li 李宗盛 offered her a contract. It would have been her ticket to international fame, but she rejected the offering, insisting on working with the little-known Chen Jia Ming. Nevertheless, she went on to top the charts in Taiwan and even in Hongkong, beating big names like Sammi Cheng and Faye Wong in record sales. There are many stories out there about Mavis getting herself pregnant, Chen refusing to divorce his wife, but these cannot be proven. The only thing obvious is the beautifully fruitless scramble the two went through.

Mavis Hee became the ambassador of Singapore’s National Kidney Foundation in 1999 and also a volunteer in Youth Challenge in the same year. She was the singer for Singapore’s National Day Parade 2000 theme song, “Shine on Me”, together with fellow Singaporean Jai. When her own record company was bought over by a Taiwanese company in 2001, Mavis felt that her customary style and approach was being threatened by various commercial considerations in the new company. She proudly made plans to quit the music scene. In 2006, Mavis was arrested after harassing two hotel guests at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. She was warded at the Institute of Mental Health and diagnosed with depression. Her last works were two singles released in 2007. She is now a gospel singer and a volunteer with the Salvation Army.

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When you’re in possession of a piece of music and you keep playing it over and over again, it loses its ability to haunt you. I remember hearing 明知道 many years ago. I’ve never bought Mavis Hee’s album and I forgot all about it. Then, on Saturday afternoon as I was walking past Hougang Mall, I heard a couple of young female buskers singing it. The song struck me. It was so familiar yet I had completely forgotten who sang it and what its title was. I did a search for the lyrics and 明知道 hit me like a boomerang. Scenes of having knowingly put up with fruitless scrambles during younger days came seeping through the cracks in my memory.


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